Read our exclusive interview with Aaron Paul, the actor behind our favourite badboy Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman
Addict, murderer, drug dealer… and one heartbreaking hot mess. If Breaking Bad is the greatest TV show in the world (it is actually in the Guinness World Records as the highest-rated TV series), then complex meth-machine Jesse Pinkman will surely go down in history as one of the small screen’s most loveable and talked-about characters ever. At least that’s the vibe I got from everyone (excitable colleagues, unusually impressed older brothers and a Heisenberg T-shirt wearing boyfriend), when I mention I’m interviewing TV’s most wanted. This is the guy who’s infiltrated our everyday lingo with ‘yo’ and ‘bitch’, inspired more beanies than Cara Delevingne and almost made me want to buy a hoodie. All of which makes Aaron Paul, who played Jesse for five seasons of Netflix’s Breaking Bad, the coolest guy on telly, right?
Well, no actually. I’m not sure I recognise the man on the phone to me from LA. I didn’t expect his vocals to be strung out or his vocab peppered with expletives, but this dude sounds like an imposter. He’s chipper bordering on cheesy, uses words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘blessed’ – especially when gushing about his wife – and collapses into a deep, throaty laugh. A lot.
That pre-fame YouTube clip of him on US game show The Price is Right in 2000 looking completely off his face? The result of ‘six or seven’ Red Bulls. And I believe him, since it transpires that the closest Aaron Paul has ever come to danger is carrying an almost-discovered engagement ring around in his jeans pocket for give months ‘just in case the time was right.’ But more on that later. This super-fly gent working ever red carpet (Breaking Bad has won twelve Emmy’s, two Golden Globes and 3 SAG Awards, whilst Aaron himself has won 13 awards altogether for his role as Jesse), with his equally popular sidekick, the show’s lead actor Bryan Cranston (Walter White), is a better actor than possibly any of us imagined.
“I’m drawn to these roles because they make me feel emotions I’m not used to feeling,” he says, referring to Jesse as well as the equally tortured speed-freak mechanic Tobey Marshall in Need for Speed, and suicidal JJ in A Long Way Down.
“In everyday life I’m very happy and content. That’s why I gravitate to the dark side; for me, it’s more exciting. It makes me feel like I’m doing something and not just walking through the role.”
Is it any wonder the clean-cut, 34-year-old son of a southern Baptist minister, who was ‘very religious growing up’, struggled to get the part on Breaking Bad? “The studio and network were convinced I wasn’t edgy enough. Usually, you find out pretty quickly after a test, but there was about a two-week wait, because [the show’s creator] Vince Gilligan was fighting for me. If it weren’t for him, who knows where I’d be?” It’s testament to his performance that Jesse wasn’t killed off in series one as originally planned, and Gilligan has since predicted: “Aaron is going to be one of the all-time greats who, 40 years from now, [will] be picking up his lifetime-achievement award at the Oscars.”
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And credit where credit’s due. He had only “documentaries, YouTube clips and interviews with addicts and recovering addicts to help him wrap his head around a role that demanded (among other atrocities and in between the meth-cooking and pipe-smoking) grimly disposing of bodies, being captured and tortured and waking up next to a dead overdosed girlfriend. Indignant that “I truly feel like I’ve lived as Jesse”, he’s also regularly dreamt as him – “I’ve been shot at and thought I was going to die; I was so wrapped up in that world.”
It’s all a stark contrast from his ‘very sheltered’ upbringing in Boise, Idaho, the youngest of five children. “It was a beautiful, loving home. I was very protected. They wanted to keep me out of harm’s way, so I didn’t grow up going to parties in high school. I never dated. My main focus was school and theatre. I was just a theatre geek. I had a girlfriend in fifth grade but, let’s be honest, we only talked three times and we dated for a year and a half. My first proper girlfriend was when I was 19 and moved to LA.”
So focused and determined to buck the trend and make the move to Tinseltown after graduation (the rest of the family still lives in Idaho), he had five part-time jobs. Then in 1998, with his $6,000 saving and his parents’ support (his mother, Darla, actually drove with him to LA), he embarked on a decade as a jobbing actor, appearing in everything from The X Files, to ER until along came Breaking Bad. And Cranston. And the biggest Hollywood bromance since Bradley Cooper and Gerard Butler, judging by the award-ceremony PDAs and LOL-some Buzzfeed articles dedicated to them.
“I love that man,” Aaron smiles. “He is a dear friend and the biggest mentor. He’s the most focused professional guy, but unbelievably immature in the best possible way. I miss laughing with him. But we’ll be friends until the end of time, for sure.” A gush-fest, yes, but also the real deal – Aaron was by Cranston’s side when he collected his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Cranston was an usher at his wedding to Lauren Parsekian in May, and the first person he told he was planning to propose (which he did in Paris on New Year’s Eve 2012).
Aaron is animated, giddy, even, when talking about his 28 year-old wife – a documentary filmmaker who runs Finding Kind, a non-profit, anti-bullying organisation, whom he met at Coachella music festival in 2010. She had a boyfriend, Aaron had a huge crush and, a year later at the same festival, they got together. “There was just this unspoken thing,” he explains. “We ran off and had our first kiss on the Ferris wheel. I told her that night how I felt. I said, “I think I love you. Don’t be terrified but I truly believe that, one day, I’m going to ask you to marry me.”
Grossed out? Thankfully she wasn’t, marrying him two years later in a Gatsby-themed ceremony in Malibu where John Mayer performed. Aaron emailed every guest the words to learn to Beauty by The Shivers. Boy, it’s rare for an actor to talk like this. Most are media-savvy, treating promotional interviews like business and hiding behind their projects. But it’s pretty clear Aaron Paul is not most actors. Take the time a family of tourists pulled up outside his house in the Hollywood Hills: instead of hiding inside, Aaron jumped out to greet them. “It was a mistake on my part, because the video went viral and then people started showing up and camping outside,” he says, sounding surprised. “They expect to see me coming down the stairs saying, “Yeah, bitch” and welcoming everyone with champagne.”
Crazed fans, never-ending accolades and even his hometown of Boise’s newly instated ‘Aaron Paul Sturtevant [his real surname] Day’ on 1 October – the only person who doesn’t seem to have registered his success is Aaron himself. It seems to be the only explanation for him being so gushy, open, and endearingly unspoilt by the trappings of fame. If this golden age of telly that everyone keeps harping on about really is a thing, then Aaron has the, well, golden ticket. He has six films releasing at the end of this year through to 2016, as well as a 10-episode TV series due out this December, so he clearly has a pick of roles. But is he simply enjoying the ride? Does he, deep down, feel he has already peaked? “It feels that way sometimes. Hopefully, I’ll continue to work,” he ponders. “All I know is Jesse Pinkman is the role of a lifetime; it’ll never come across my path again. Breaking Bad changed my life.”
This feature was adapted from the April 2014 issue